In just over a week it will be exactly a hundred years since the birth of Ian Fleming, wartime intelligence officer and creator of cultural icon James Bond 007.
To mark the occasion, the Imperial War Museum in London has opened a special Fleming'n'Bond themed exhibit, For Your Eyes Only, which will run until May '09. Aware of the fact that many Reg readers have some interest in 007 lore, spooks, crypto, gambling, gadgetry, heavy drinking, hot babes in bikinis, flying cars* or indeed all of the above, the Chief Vulture despatched your correspondent to the exhibit.
The IWM is always a good day out for a death-tech or military history spotter, and the FYEO exhibit is well up to the mark - especially for those interested in the creator as well as Bond trivia itself.
Fleming was a fairly standard pre-war toff by background. His father died fighting in World War One, and after Eton young Ian was supposed to follow him into the army. He got into Sandhurst, the army officer academy, but - as the IWM delicately put it - "left under a cloud". (If you believe Channel Four, the young Ian had contracted a dose of Cupid's Measles from lady of negotiable affection.) A failed attempt to get into the diplomatic service followed, and then a further step down in the world as Fleming became a hack with the Reuters news service.
As everyone knows, journos aren't paid enough to live the kind of glamorous playboy life that Fleming favoured. He left Reuters to become a stockbroker and then a banker, but didn't do very well at either - though his accomplishments in the fields of drinking, smoking, gambling and womanising were apparently notable.
At the outbreak of World War Two, however, Fleming landed on his feet - and this is where the IWM curators start to take a serious interest. Commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve**, Fleming was appointed as personal assistant to Admiral John Godfrey, Director of the Naval Intelligence Division (NID) of the Admiralty.
As Godfrey recalled, Fleming was "the only officer with a finger in every pie", who liaised with most of the British spook services as well as those of America. The FYEO exhibit has some good stuff on NID's successes during the war. Many of these were based on the use of ULTRA intelligence - the codeword for info gleaned by decrypting German naval signals traffic protected by the Enigma system.
NID also directed more active capers, such as Operation MINCEMEAT - in which it was arranged for the dead body of a supposed British courier to wash up on the Spanish coast, in an area where a German agent was known to be active. The faked plans carried by the imaginary "Major Martin" led Germany to divert troops away from the Allied landing zones in Sicily.
NID had its own commando outfit as well, 30 Assault Unit, which was intended to seize important German documents, technology and records before they could be destroyed to prevent advancing Allied armies getting hold of them. Like Fleming, James Bond rose to be a Commander RNVR in the war, and was supposed to have seen action in the Ardennes - which could have occurred as a 30AU officer, though no details are given.
Fleming himself was almost entirely a Whitehall warrior, though he did accompany the disastrous Dieppe raid of 1942 aboard the destroyer HMS Fernie. The ship came under fire, but Fleming didn't participate in the bloody massacre ashore, which saw two-thirds of the assault troops killed, wounded or captured.